The ghosts were not just ghosts for Dan. They were people. The knife that had cut them into a split reality had not completely severed the rope, and there were strands left over, stubbornly staying.
Dan said, “Why do we need houses?”
“We need houses so that we can be safe, and comfortable,” replied Mary.
Dan asked, “Why do we need comfort? Or safety?”
“Because, first off, without comfort,” Mary told him, “you would feel miserable, and secondly, because if you aren’t safe you could die.”
“How do you know that we’d be miserable without comfort?”
Mary sighed sadly and smiled with a forlorn expression. Dan went away. Maybe the Monkey Man would know better.
He walked down the dirt path and came to the spot where the Monkey Man spent all his hours. There was a cracked and weathered statue of an angel, with only the basic shape of a face; the exact features, at first so sharply chiseled into the rock, were now after many long winters worn away. There was a large stone in the ground, and it was on top of this that the Monkey Man perched.
He was a wild sort, a bold fellow who would say his opinion no matter what. His calves were strong-looking and burnished like bronze; his bare feet were as tanned and tawny as the rest of his wiry body. He was wearing only a sort of toga, and was covered in coarse dark hair. His arms, his legs, his face: the Monkey Man was hairy. He had such Bacchic eyes, such long arms, that he looked like some sort of animal-man, so that was how he had gotten his name.
The Monkey Man howled, deeply, and with great pain, as if to mourn some dark thing. The call of the wild, it was, and none could understand it who did not belong to the wild. Then the Monkey Man, almost oblivious to Dan’s presence, began to sing:
“To the gates of Avalon
By gilded fairies to the dawn
I wish to be carried when
The final rays of sunlight take me,
My soul to that land like heaven.
Won’t you come and visit me
In the shining Isle
When I rise eternal?
If you should find old Avalon,
Enjoy the sunrays sweet,
For if you go you’ll want to stay
Where the shadows quiver
And the darkness always hides.
But nay, don’t tarry long
For if you stay you’ll find that there
Lie many things best lost.
In the Isle of Avalon
Will you join me in the sun
In the land where evil dies?
To the Gates of Avalon
I’m carried, love, you know,
I’m carried into golden light
To the land where the shadows hide.”
Dan sat down in the grass and looked at the Monkey Man. The Monkey Man stared back. Dan could never figure out, whether the Monkey Man belonged to man or to nature. And he could never seem to find out his name. The stone on which it was carved was weathered by long years, like the angel’s face.
“Your countenance has no precedent,” said the Monkey Man, solemnly. Dan didn’t really understand, but he nodded in agreement. The Monkey Man continued, “For all the years that I have lived and died, I have never seen one like you.”
“You’ve seen me millions of times,” Dan said, confused.
“No,” said the Monkey Man. “I speak not of your accidents, but of your form. Do we not peel an orange to eat what is inside, and throw away the outer layer? And likewise with the banana.”
Dan almost smiled, but he thought of the song, which calmed him down. The Monkey Man was so peculiar. He always ended up bringing the word “banana” into every conversation he had, so solemnly, too.
The Monkey Man continued, “I have seen none like this save myself. You wish to flee the warm hearth of your life’s home. You are not yet ready, little child.”
“Why not?” asked Dan.
The Monkey Man’s giant, dark, shaggy beard waggled in the wind. “You are young. And spoiled to the comforts of your life. The wilderness is not for you.”
“I’m seven,” said Dan. “I’m grown up.”
The Monkey Man seemed to smile, but it was hard to tell underneath all that hair. “I disagree,” he replied. “No, your banana is not yet ripe.”
Dan laughed. The Monkey Man laughed too, and his eyes sparkled like icicles on a pale frosty morning, misted over by the wafting air made by a mug of hot chocolate. They also sparkled like the sun glinting through the canopy of trees in a jungle. It was hard to tell which.
“Dan!” The voice was far off, a woman’s. The Monkey Man said, “You must go now, little one. And remember, bananas are good for both body and soul.”
Dan smiled and got up. He ran down the dirt path, away from the Monkey Man, for now. He’d come back soon.
His mother was waiting for him at the bench. It was an old, old bench, rusting where it sat. His mother sometimes read to him there, while they looked at the stones in the ground. Other times she read silently, to herself. Other times she just sat there. But whenever they came, she always came to that bench. Dan didn’t really like the bench; he thought that they should sit in the grass at the edge of the woods, looking at the stones from the other side, but of course his mother would never do that. It was a pity, really, that she had never seen the other side of the gravestone for Natalie Ermine, or Nathan Stoll. His mother hadn’t seen very many of the gravestones in the yard, and certainly not all the sides of the ones she had seen.
“Let’s go,” his mother said.
“Can’t we stay a little bit longer? I was talking to the Monkey Man.”
She smiled wearily. “Aren’t you getting a little old for that?”
“No. my banana isn’t ripe.” Dan giggled.
His mother led him down the rest of the path, back up the little hill and down the other side, as the sun set over the graveyard. They came to the parking lot. Dan yawned. They got into the car and drove home.
That night, after dinner, Dan sat in his room, looking out the window at the pale full moon. He smiled and yawned. He was supposed to be in bed, and his lights were out, but he liked to sit at his window. It made him feel grown up. Even though his banana wasn’t ripe.
Dan wanted to run away. Just for maybe a week, long enough to meet some princess in the woods and with the help of the local gnome brigade come riding in on snails to save her from the treacherous webs of Arachne. Then he’d come back, and his parents would cry and tell him they loved him. And he’d bring the princess too, and keep her in the attic, and play army men with her when he got bored.
Dan leaned forward and pressed his face against the glass of his window. His child’s fingers spidered up the window and touched the latch, gently, carefully. His breath fogged the glass, and he pulled back the latch, and then the other one, and then with a great deal of heaving he pulled up the window, and latched it back, and hopped over the sill into the garden.
He crushed several violets and tulips, being a seven-year-old boy, and since he had no shoes on, his feet squelched and got dirty almost immediately when he came into the flowerbed. He walked forward across the lawn, across the street, and up to the little rise.
He stood there for a bit, overlooking the graveyard. It was all familiar territory to him, but it looked so vastly different at dark, with the moonlight glinting on the slabs, and the forest looming, ominously black, silhouetted by the moonlight, in the background.
The forest didn’t scare him very much. He stepped forward. Once he got to the graveyard, he scrambled up the low brick wall and jumped down the other side, and tore off running.
He didn’t bother with the path; he ran, through the oldest part of the graveyard, to the edge of the trees, and once he was there, he stopped.
It was dark in there, he noticed with sudden qualms. There might be werewolves. Or regular wolves, that were evil, and wanted to eat his grandmother and wear her clothes and then trick him into being eaten, too.
There was a whisper, though, down his neck, and he stepped in.
At once there was a change. The forest was completely silent, and completely dark; and as he walked he noticed that the ground was smooth and perfect, as if the forest had known he would be coming, and had prepared a pathway for him. Dan walked deep into the forest, until he thought he heard a giggle. He froze, and looked around and craned his neck; but it was no use in the black of the night.
“My village is a simple place,
Simple too its grace.
But you’ll hear no common talk
Of the area called Deadman’s Rock
For it’s a Deadman’s place.
And when the nighttime claims our souls,
The last bright spark of smold’ring coals,
Well, then, we’re buried there
And put into our Maker’s care.”
The voice stopped reciting the poem. Dan thought it rather good, but he didn’t say so. He just said: “Hello?”
“Hello, Danny. Want to play a game of poems?”
“How did you know my name?”
“I’ve heard the ghosts call you that,” the voice said. By now Dan had no doubt that it was a girl’s voice. “Want to play poems?”
“How do you do that?”
“We recite poems back and forth,” she said. “Till we get bored. Then I’ll go away, and you’ll yawn and go back home.”
“Sure, I guess,” replied Dan. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Milly,” she said. “You go next, since I just said one.”
“All right,” Dan said. He thought hard for a few moments, then settled on something the Monkey Man had sung. He didn’t remember the tune, but he didn’t have to sing it, so he just said it.
“The cottontail is hopping ‘neath
The silver quarter moon
And with its thumping comes the trump
Of bullfrog battle-croaks.
The chanting of the crickets, hear
Them dancing in the shade
That we call night, others day
When the creatures come to play.”
Dan bowed to the darkness, even though he knew Milly couldn’t see him.
“That one was good,” Milly said. Then she said hers.
“A myriad of worlds lost beyond,
A mane of silky stars to caress the dawn,
My eyes see thousands, a glittering host,
An army of which the heavens boast;
The stars, white-hot, shining eyes
To adorn the ebony winter skies.”
Dan smiled. He liked that one. “All right,” he said. “My turn.”
But then, Milly said, “Hush.” Dan heard someone walking through the grass. He turned around and heard the Monkey Man calling, “Dan?”
There was a soft breeze next to Dan, and the soft air seemed to be a soft hand, holding his. Dan felt something lightly touch his lips, and then fade away, and the Monkey Man was closer now. “Dan?”
“I’m here,” he announced.
“What were you doing?”
“I was looking for gnomes,” Dan lied.
“In this pitch black abyss?”
“I can see good in the dark,” Dan said. “Bananas help your eyes.”
“That’s carrots, and I would claim you haven’t consumed much of either lately, if I were a betting ghost.” said the Monkey Man.
“Oh,” Dan said, shrugging. “Well, I can see pretty well.”
“I believe you. There are some forest spirits out here,” the Monkey Man told him, “that get into a myriad of mischief with visitors.”
“Really?” Dan asked, trying to seem incredulous.
“Verily. Take my hand. I will be your guide out of this dark murk. The hour is late, and your bedtime past.”
Dan nodded, and reached out and found the Monkey Man’s hand. The Monkey Man led him out of the forest. Dan thought, as they neared the edge, that he heard someone, a girl, whisper, “Come again soon, Danny.” But it could have been his imagination.
They came out of the forest, and Dan yawned. The Monkey Man faded into the night, and Dan went home.